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Sibelius and Aho, NSO

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Sibelius, Symphonies, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, O. Vänskä
(BIS, 2001)

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Aho / Nielsen, Clarinet Concertos, M. Fröst, O. Vänskä
(BIS, 2010)
Osmo Vänskä will be returning to the Minnesota Orchestra as music director. The news of the two-year contract renewal, after a disastrous negotiation implosion between the musicians and management over the past year and a half, arrived Thursday night, in the hours leading up to Vänskä's first return to the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra since 2007. It will hopefully not take another seven years for Vänskä to return to Washington, because although we have reviewed him in other places (with the LSO in 2012), it is good to hear what he does with the NSO. If the results were not optimal at the first performance, things will likely improve at the next two performances, tonight and Saturday.

Vänskä's calling card is the Sibelius symphonies: he has recorded them with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and the lockout debacle interrupted a second one with the Minnesota Orchestra. Sibelius biographer Andrew Barnett has noted that in the symphony on this program, No. 3, Sibelius "turns his back on the national Romanticism of the First and Second symphonies, but has not yet adopted the bold modernism of the Fourth." Some conductors, Barnett observed, "have failed to meet its interpretative challenges; some have refused to conduct the work at all." Vänskä, who knows his way around this score, paced the symphony expertly, helping to shape the gradual blossoming of sound in the long crescendos of the first movement, layering the instruments onto the mass with careful attention to detail. The development, with its unexpected intervallic writing and ppp dynamic, was mysterious, followed by a final crescendo powered by an ostinato pulse of sixteenth notes, with the horns riding the crest of the wave.

The main problem with the symphony is a tendency among many conductors to take the second movement too fast. The tempo marking ("Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto") is ambiguous, but according to Barnett, "Sibelius left no doubt that he intended a slower tempo, as favored by almost all Finnish conductors. In the 1980s Jalas also confirmed to me that Sibelius himself conducted the piece in six, not in two." Vänskä started beating in six, but then made clear distinctions between 6/4 and 3/2 patterns, which are juxtaposed and sometimes simultaneous. It felt like a graceful, melancholy Finnish slow dance, with that lovely gooey melody on the G string of the violins. The scherzo part of the hybrid third movement was a little Mendelssohnian, with lightly skittering violins and flutes, but the finale introduces what Barnett rightly identified as "hymn-like, almost religious elements," a broad tune that is taken up, section by section, to a powerful conclusion. (The composer once described the movement as "the crystallization of thought from chaos.") If the ensemble unity of the NSO was not always optimal, it seemed to be connected to the fact that Vänskä's right hand often stopped conducting the beat, as he preferred to cue with his left hand, leaving the orchestra sometimes at a loss, or so it seemed.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Conductor Osmo Vänskä and the NSO stumble a bit at the Finnish line (Washington Post, April 25)

---, After longest labor dispute in U.S. orchestral history, Osmo Vänskä considers his options (Washington Post, April 19)
Vänskä has also championed the music of his countryman Kalevi Aho, and in these concerts he is leading the NSO's first performances of Aho's clarinet concerto, with Martin Fröst, for whom it was written, as soloist. Like another prolific Finnish composer, Rautavaara, Aho is comfortable embracing more tonal sounds, but he makes use of some unexpected sounds on the clarinet -- its screeching high range, its glissando slide, and harmonics at the edge of squawking that come close to producing harmonies. The second movement, a wide-ranging cadenza, uses trills so thoroughly that one almost forgets the instrument's regular tone quality. All of this Fröst played with aplomb, if perhaps with a few too many dramatic poses that seemed completely unnecessary. Many intriguing sounds came from the NSO members, too, in little dialogues with the solo (from triangle, marimba, contrabassoon, gongs, and tuba, as well as the orchestral clarinet section). Fröst and the orchestra had arranged for a fun encore, Klezmer Dance No. 3 (“Let’s Be Happy”), arranged by his brother Göran Fröst, complete with a little semi-improvised introduction, with references to the opening of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and to Sibelius's third symphony.

Mendelssohn's fourth symphony (A major, "Italian") seemed a let-down after that first half, particularly because the ensemble issues worsened, especially in the violins, who have a lot of notes to play. Vänskä went for a sense of energy and edge in the first movement, not pushing the funeral march of the second movement too fast and keeping the third movement soft and delicate. The pacing of the finale, extremely fast, did not show the NSO in the best light.

This concert repeats on Friday and Saturday night.

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